Prepackaged and Individually Portioned

The Light of Civilization Flickers by Russ Nicholson

One of the biggest challenges Torchbearer GMs face is creating dungeons or choosing published dungeons (especially if they weren’t specifically written with Torchbearer in mind).

I highly recommend crafting your own dungeons if you have the time. It’s fun! The Adventure Design chapter can help make it a snap, too! But you don’t need to shy away from published adventures, even from other games. They’ll make your life easier.

Whether you choose to make your own or use a prepackaged adventure, you’ll get the best results if you play to Torchbearer’s strengths.

Small Adventures Are Better

Under the House of the Three Squires1The adventure included in the Torchbearer core book is sprawling as Torchbearer adventures go. It will take a group 4-6 sessions or more to complete. The Dread Crypt of Skogenby, on the other hand, can play in a single session if your group is really focused, but will probably take them 2-4 sessions.

In my experience, groups typically get through three to four areas per session of play. Especially for the early sessions of a campaign, you want short, snappy adventures that allow the players to face some trouble, (hopefully) find some treasure, and return to town to spend their ill-gotten gains. Save the slogs for later adventures when the players are dug in and committed.

Something on par with Skogenby, or even smaller, is recommended. If you’re writing your own adventure, three or four areas is sufficient for a session’s worth of adventure.

Incorporate the Environment

A fair number of fantasy adventures just come down to fighting monsters. Desperate fights with monsters are fun, but Torchbearer really shines when there are environmental challenges to face as well. Getting from one floor to another when the stairs have collapsed, or swimming through a water-filled passage while figuring out how to manage your light and keep your spellbook dry, is incredibly fun in Torchbearer. Look for adventures that allow you to incorporate such challenges, or make sure to build them in if you’re writing your own.

In Skogenby, the tight squeeze (area 2), secret door (area 6) and rockfall (area 9) are all examples of environmental challenges. I like the tight squeeze in particular because it’s not a challenge when entering the dungeon—at that point you have all the time in the world. It’s only when you need to exit the dungeon in a hurry that the tight squeeze becomes a serious problem for the PCs. I like it because the problem presents itself innocuously to the PCs, but perceptive and savvy players can recognize the danger and take steps to mitigate it.

Use Monsters with Care

The Torchbearer versions of some monsters commonly found in other fantasy roleplaying games can be considerably more dangerous than they are in their native systems. When you’re running an adventure written for another game, consider the numbers. Even relatively weak monsters can devastate a group of Torchbearer characters if they outnumber them significantly.

Add a monster’s Nature to any helping dice at its disposal to get a feel for how many dice you’ll throw against the players in a conflict. And keep in mind that Might can also tip the scales. Monsters with Might 5+ are especially dangerous because PCs can’t kill them without access to level benefits or magic that boosts their own Might.

Consider that Skogenby has lots of monsters, but it doesn’t have them in every room. That leaves space for careful PCs to choose the best plan and approach before taking the monsters on. Even more important, the big bad is walled off from the PCs to start (though it has ways to make itself known), which allows them time to explore and build up resources before tackling the most difficult part of the dungeon.

Keep an Eye on the Future

Consider whether the adventure presents an immediate, delayed or dormant threat to surrounding communities. Think about how the situation might evolve if the players ignore the adventure or attempt it but can’t resolve things.

As I mentioned in previous post, Skogenby presents an immediate threat. If the players don’t successfully deal with Haathor-Vash right away, the threat will grow. The undead will overrun the village, causing the survivors to flee to surrounding villages for refuge. Soon the dead will present a threat to those villages as well.

Use Enemies, Friends, Mentors and Parents

In character creation, your players took the time to detail their relationships. You might not use them in your first adventure, but think about how they might be involved with or affected by the dungeons and hazardous locations you place. Not every adventure should involve a relationship but incorporating them judiciously will make your games pop.

Turning again to Skogenby, the village presents an opportunity to incorporate such relationships. Perhaps the PCs have family connections in Skogenby, or a mentor has disappeared into the dungeon itself. Maybe an enemy has gone in seeking treasure, or made common cause with Haathor-Vash!

Consider with the Eye of a Torchbearer Adventurer

One of my favorite non-Torchbearer adventures to run in Torchbearer is an old White Dwarf magazine D&D adventure called The Beacon at Enon Tor2This link leads to a version of the adventure converted for Castles & Crusades. Consistently, one of my favorite moments when running this adventure is when the players stumble upon the tower’s storeroom, which is filled with barrels of oil, dozens of torches, bins of nails, axes, saws, timber, sacks, sailcloth and more. The adventure notes that none of it is especially valuable, but to Torchbearer adventurers, this room is a treasure trove!

Every time players find this room, I know that they’re going to find something creative and surprising to do with all that stuff. Don’t be afraid to give the PCs lots of gear and supplies. They’ll have to figure out how to carry it, and in the meantime their creativity will kick into high gear.

In Skogenby, the chamber of ablutions (area 4), chamber of vigils (area 5) and the altar of ascension (area 6) all contain materials that can be used by creative players. What would you do with the spears from the sarcophagus trap, or the sand in the urns? What about the sleeping dust from the trap in the secret door?

Place Treasure and Other Loot

Treasure is an essential element of Torchbearer adventures. Torchbearer characters need the opportunity to gain treasure so they can go to town, heal up and resupply before heading out to adventure some more. If they aren’t getting treasure, Torchbearer goes from being a difficult game to a punishing one.

Just as you shouldn’t worry about giving players access to too much gear, don’t be too worried about giving the players access to too much treasure. The characters will have to figure out how to carry it and town will drain treasure fast! You don’t need to make it easy to get the treasure, but you don’t need to be shy with it either.

Published adventures are usually pretty good about placing treasure, but it’s tempting to just rely on Torchbearer’s treasure tables when you’re writing your own. Fight that urge! Don’t get me wrong: The treasure tables are fun and you should use them. But you should make sure to specifically place some treasure—gold, gems, magic items, etc.—and then use the tables to round the planned treasure out.

Skogenby uses treasure to tell its story. The silver arm rings kicked everything off. The silver ewer in the chamber of ablutions is part of Haathor-Vash’s mystery, as are the runes in the altar ascension. And, of course, there’s some loot in Haathor-Vash’s vault. In all, there’s 28D to be found in the Dread Crypt.

Way Down in the Hole

Castle Erobring by Kurt Komoda

As a Torchbearer GM, your job is to create opportunities for players to make choices.

The communities you’ve placed on your map have problems! Not only do they face the possibility of real-world horrors like natural disasters, war and plague, the lands surrounding them are filled with goblins, dragons and evil enchanters. The dungeons and hazardous locations on your map won’t just exist in isolation (for the most part), they’ll create direct and indirect threats to the settlements on your map, and the people in those places will notice!

Always consider how the dungeons and hazardous locations you put on your map might threaten one or more settlements on the map. Maybe some of them aren’t immediate threats: They’ll evolve over time from isolated incidents to threat, unless the players intervene. Others might lay dormant, and will only become threats if the PCs disturb something they shouldn’t. Some, of course, will present an immediate problem.

In Starting Fresh, I placed three dungeons on my map to start: Under the House of the Three Squires in the south, The Dread Crypt of Skogenby just a hop, skip and a jump to the west, and Thelon’s Rift in the north.

The Dread Crypt represents the immediate threat. It was dormant until some villagers disturbed the ancient barrow, and now an evil spirit is haunting the village and killing people. It doesn’t get more immediate than that. But there’s also room for evolution. The players may decide to pursue another adventure first. In that case, the threat presented by the Dread Crypt will grow: More undead will boil out of the crypt and invade Skogenby, destroying the village and flooding nearby communities like Asktoft with refugees from the slavering undead horde. The PCs could still turn the tide, but the danger will be greater.

Under the House of the Three Squires is the delayed threat. While the initial victims will have lost their lives if the players don’t tackle this adventure immediately, the monsters don’t immediately threaten the surrounding countryside. However, if left undisturbed, they will soon begin raiding merchants and travelers using the Post Road. Asktoft and even Holtburg will begin to feel the sting of the cut trade route over time.

Thelon’s Rift is my dormant site. Reputedly filled with fabulous treasure, it will stay in stasis until the PCs tackle it (or I get inspired to do something evil). I don’t want to spoil this adventure too much just yet, but the PCs can definitely unleash something horrible if they step wrong within the Rift.

In placing your own dungeons, try to include a mix of threats. If every dungeon and villain presents an immediate threat, you’ll make your players feel helpless. They’ll feel like their choices don’t matter because no matter what they do, everything else will get even more terrible. On the other hand, if every dungeon and villain is dormant, they’ll feel like their choices don’t have consequences: It won’t matter what they choose to prioritize because everything else will stay the same.

And make sure to spend some time considering how your threats might evolve over time. Not only will such evolution help your players feel that their characters exist in a living, breathing world in which their choices matter, it will also help ensure that time you spend prepping a dungeon isn’t wasted. You won’t have to worry about the PCs leveling past the adventures you’ve worked on. Instead, you’ll spend a little bit of time updating a given adventure to keep it compelling.

Have You Heard the One About…

As I mentioned at the outset, your job as a Torchbearer GM is to create opportunities for players to make choices. Once you’ve created your dungeons and thought about how they’ll threaten your setting, you need to put some information in the players’ hands so they can weigh their options and decide what to prioritize.

Rumors are one of the best tools at your disposal to do this. When the PCs arrive in a settlement, let them know what people are buzzing about. Maybe you roleplay a bit when they visit the tavern, and the barkeep or some drunken wag fills them in on the latest gossip. Maybe they hear tales from fellow travelers as they wait to pass through the town’s gate. Or you could just tell the players outright what people in town are talking about.

The first time my players went to town in my new game, they heard the following rumors:

  • Some folk in Skogenby, the next village over, uncovered a strange barrow while clearing a field recently. They think some evil spirit has come out of it, and they’ve asked for Lady Gry’s help, but she’s away. Supposedly there’s a lot of treasure in the tomb.
  • The Widow Auda owns the tavern you’re currently drinking in. Her sons, Odger and Samo, made a trip down to the House of the Three Squires last week to pick up some casks of sour beer, a trip they make about once a season. They should have been back days ago. It’s planting season, so no one wants to leave their fields, but some of the townsfolk have taken up a collection as a modest reward for anyone willing to make the trip to find out what’s happened to them.
  • A master enchanter named Thelon used to have a secret workshop in the mountains, somewhere near Holtburg. He used to come into Holtburg every once in a while to buy alchemical supplies for his work. No one has seen him in years. He’s probably dead. They say his workshop was packed to the rafters with all sorts of wonders.

I don’t make the players take any particular actions in town or pay a price to get these rumors. These are the things everyone is talking about. Note that this doesn’t invalidate town actions like gathering rumors or digging for leads. Instead, they give players a starting point. If they players decide they’re really interested in Thelon the Enchanter, they might ask around about him and his work.

Rumor Grows as It Goes

There’s an art to creating compelling rumors. The more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Don’t give everything away. A good rumor is a tease. You want to whet the players’ appetites, get them interested, but leave room for discovery and surprise. Remember that the players have tools like Digging for Leads at their disposal if they really want to get more information. You may want to have a few additional choice bits of information prepared in case they do try to hunt them down.
  • Use your NPCs. Unless their characters are all loners, tough and cool, your players spent a bit of time in character creation detailing their parents, friends, mentors and enemies. If you want to really get the players’ attention, weave those NPCs into your dungeons and rumors. Do this sparingly! If an enemy is behind every plot, or a friend gets lost in every dungeon, it will feel contrived. Include them at just the right level and your players will be hooked. You’ll have to experiment to find the right amount.
  • Reincorporate.  Leverage past events from your game and include them in the rumors. The more you tie new things into past events, the more your players will feel that the world and campaign have a life of their own. Did the PCs drive the Red Crest clan of kobolds out into the countryside while dealing with the House of the Three Squires? Maybe after an adventure or two pass, they hear a rumor about a steading that’s been overrun by kobolds that bear the mark of the Red Crest…
  • Seed expectations of treasure. Not all (or even most) Torchbearer PCs adventure for altruistic reasons. Your players might be the exception, of course, but I try not to rely on the desire for heroism to hook players with my rumors. The implication of cold hard cash or magic items usually does the trick. You know your players best. Think about what might get them going and make sure to hint at those things in your rumors.
  • Don’t feel bound by the truth. Your rumors don’t have to be true! They’re rumors and gossip after all. They may get some things wrong. The rumors may say a house is hauntedby spectres and ghosts, but the truth might be that a band of slavers is using the house as a base for their smuggling operation. In my view, every good adventure includes some sort of unexpected surprise. You can use a rumor to set up the eventual twist. As with using NPCs, don’t do this all the time! If rumors are always wrong, the players won’t buy them anymore. Mislead the players sparingly and everyone will enjoy the payoff.

Do you have any tips for creating rumors or stories about how you’ve used them in your games? If so, please share!

Starting Fresh Pt. 2

Last week I wrote about creating the map for my new campaign. Finishing the map (for now) wasn’t the end of my prep for this campaign, of course. Before I could even think about prepping the dungeons, I had to get down some details important to character creation.

The first thing I did was give each of the settlements on the map their own skills and traits so the players could choose for their characters to come from those places. In a pinch, I could have just used the templates from the core book. Asktoft could just be a Busy Crossroads. But this is an opportunity to give the place its own character and feel.

For instance, here’s Asktoft:

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Starting Fresh

Hello friends!

As I noted in my last post, I started a new Torchbearer game a few weeks ago. I’ve subjected this particular group to a number of playtests of new adventures recently, all of which have ended in TPKs. They’ve been good sports, but they were ready to commit to something longer term (with the hopes of actually surviving a dungeon or two).

For my part, I wanted to get back to Torchbearer’s roots. One of the key ideas in my head when I first started working on the game was the idea of a map that would start with just a few locations and then grow over time as the group explored it and new details were added. That’s the core idea behind the Prepare Thyself chapter in the book.

I decided that we would start the game in the Middarmark, specifically in the Gottmark of the far north because it’s been unexplored territory in our games so far. I went to my Middarmark map and selected the boxed part of the map below. Specifically, I think it’s the little saddle between the mountain in the southwest portion of the map and the hills above it.

For me, the hardest part of making any map is where to start. I often find that picking an anchor geography point or points helps get me going. Part of what drew me to the section of the Middarmark map I chose is that big mountain at the top of the box. I chose that as my anchor point. I also know that I want to include Highwater (the port city from The Secret Vault of the Queen of Thieves). We’ll put it somewhere on the coast, though probably not on the initial map. That’s my second anchor point.

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